Aug 1, 2011

The Mark Jones Interview

Having worked on more than a few classic games on the ZX Spectrum -including an amazing port of Wizball, Arkanoid II, Tai-Pan, Gryzor and Total Recall- Mark Jones, a game designer and game artist, has agreed to shed some light on what developing 8-bit (and some 16-bit) games was all about. Oh, and to talk about retro graphics design, classic games, modern indie gaming and his forthcoming iOS projects too.

Do you miss the days working and being creative over at Ocean?

Yeah, I suppose I do. I don't miss the waiting around after I'd finished a project and waiting to be teamed up for the next one. I spent many days looking for things to do. Shame really. It was great though in the main, it was my first job away from home. I was doing something I daredn't even dream of 6 months before and working for one of THE big software houses in the world with some very talented and lovely people.

Did you also work for Imagine?

Yes, but it was the same company after the original Imagine went bust and Ocean bought just the name. The same people did the games, in the same building on the same computers. We all tried to work out the pattern, as to wether a game would be an Ocean or Imagine game, but whenever we thought we'd worked it out, a game would be announced that would contradict our theory!

You were both a games artist and a game designer. Were you often conflicted about your role? What did you enjoy the most in each aspect of your work?

I was never employed as a games designer. The closet I got to being one was throwing some ideas around with Simon Butler when he was given the task of designing a game based on the film Platoon. I was staying at his house at the time and remember talking about it a few evenings after we'd got back to his. I thought of the tunnel section where the bloke comes out of the water, but that was about the only major contribution I ever made to a games design in the Ocean days. I did have a major hand in designing Flood 2 for Bullfrog which was going to have lots of original monsters in it and loads of nicked ideas from all the best platform games I'd ever played, but it didn't happen in the end. 

The best part of either roles was seeing something you'd been working on coming together, be it a loading screen or a walk animation and the programmer puts it in the game and you can see it, moving about, doing what it's supposed to do.

What tools did you use?

On the Spectrum we used an amended version of Melbourne Draw that had added animation capabilities, tacked on by Paul Owens, a veteran in-house programmer. And for the loading screens I used a combination of that one, plus The Artist 2 and Art Studio. They all had bits that they did better than the others, but as to what those bits were, I've completely forgotten. Once we'd moved over to 16 bit graphics we used an in-house animation and map editor called Fudd-Ed (after the programmer John Brandwood, who's nickname was Elmer Fudd). It was a breeze to use and made creating animations & maps on the ST a doddle.

Which games you've worked on make you feel the proudest?

Well, the Spectrum conversion of Wizball is the one I'm remembered for the most. It was my first game proper, it did get loads of great reviews, a Crash Smash and a Sinclair User Classic, but my displeasure at having it released with loads of stuff missing, as good as unfinished, is well documented and I don't feel like moaning about it anymore.

Which of your games and the games you've worked on would you recommend to a modern gamer?

None, they'd all get laughed at. I'd show them my loading screens, that's about all.

How did you decide to get into actually making games?

I just used to draw graphics on the screen while I was till at school, not for any purpose, just messing about, and amassed quite a collection. Not much of it was very good. I was featured in the first Crash 'On The Screen' feature where they showcased readers Spectrum art. Most of mine was rubbish and everyone after me were miles better. I used to show off my work in the local computer shop and my boss, Graham Wilson, and some of the other people who worked there said I should send some stuff off and try and get a job doing it. So I put a tape together and ended up getting the job at Ocean.

And what did you use for your first computer gaming experiences?

My cousin had a ZX81 so my very first games were things like Mazogs and 3D Monster Maze. He ended up getting a Spectrum just after I'd been round a school mate called Neil Anderson's house and saw his Speccy. I remember Neil loading up Bruce Lee, Jet Set Willy and Atic Atac. I started begging my parents for one and they caved in, eventually, and I remember pulling it out, as a surprise, from between the chair and the sofa in our living room. My own 48k rubber keyed Spectrum!

As for Tai - Pan, well, you still remember. it don't you? Could be have a brief making-of?

I only did the loading screen, that's all. The game was made out of house by Sentient Software, they didn't do a loading screen, so Gary Bracey asked me and I did it. It's my least favourite loading screen of mine though.

What about your work on the 16-bit machines? Any fond memories?

No, not really. It all started to go tits up for me then. I suppose back then I didn't have the patience I do now. I lost interest quickly and what with the increase in colours and smaller pixels, graphics took longer to make. You'd end up with 2 or 3 artists working on one game and I didn't like that either. They would do something in completely different style to me and I didn't like that it was going in the game I was working on. Stupid really. I really enjoyed working on Flood 2 for Bullfrog, but then just as we were kicking up speed it all fell through"

What were your favourite games of the era?

Fav Spectrum games include both Legend / Dragontorc of Avalon, Trashman, Tir Na Nog, Dynamite Dan 1 & 2, Stop The Express, all the Ultimate stuff up to and NOT including Cyberun, Boulderdash, Zub, Bugaboo, Splat, Fred, Karnov & Rex to name but a few.

How about today's games?

Well it's not really a new game but I've recently been playing Kameo on the Xbox which is class, by Rare. It's coming on for 10 years old, so I guess it's pretty old now! I have tried playing some newer games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Halo 3 and Fable II, and I lose interest very quickly. Playing them is like watching a film and you have to commit so much time to them to actually get anywhere that I just get bored! The newest games I LIKE playing are those from the Nintendo 64 era, that's about as modern as I get.

Is there a game designer you truly admire?

The Stampers with all their Ultimate & Rare output. Shigeru Miyamoto for Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. Predictable answers I know. Less predictable is Steve Turner with his Avalons and the Gargoyle Games fellas.

Would you say the contemporary indie scene is reminiscent of the Speccy bedroom coding era?

A little, the big difference being that back then it was all new, and we were all seeing and experiencing new things for the first time. It's good that people are going back to writing games in their back rooms, but it's all a bit 'seen it all before' now, isn't it?

Are you still interested in designing games and their graphics? Any plans for a new game perhaps?

I am about to start on a retro style game for the iPhone/iPad with a programmer who used to play MY games when he was a kid! He's already had some jolly games published, thought I have to keep quiet about what the game is for now. Though I'm sure I'll just come up some nice but 'seen it all before' type graphics myself! I can't wait to get started. I've had some practice and I'm sure, with just a bit of oiling, I can come up with the goods. It has been over 20 years since I worked on a game that was published. I'm getting a bit bored talking about work I did over 20 years ago! Would be nice to have something new to be interviewed about at last! Fingers crossed all goes to plan.

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  1. Squeeee!Mark Jones! *faints*

    Seriously, though. I grew up on Spectrum games in yet-to-become-capitalist communist Poland. I didn't recognize the name, but damn, Gryzor, Wizball - I knew this games, of course!

    A very interesting read and I really am surprised how do you manage to find these folks, Gnome. This made my day.

  2. I mean I didn't recognize Mark Jones' name at first, but I did recognize these games and by extension the guy behind them. :)

  3. So glad you enjoyed the interview dear Barts. And facebook does do wonderful things ;)

  4. (chokes back a tear and stares lovingly at the ocean logo....)

    Thank you..

  5. You are most welcome dear Elderly.

  6. Well Spectrum was before my time, but I did find the interview interesting.

  7. Glad you did dear Ithmeer :)

  8. Awesome interview! Great stuff Gnome.